The last time John L. Smith played at Bobcat Stadium, he was the head coach at the University of Idaho.
That afternoon in 1993, Doug Nussmeier and the No. 1 Vandals fell to the host Bobcats of Montana State, 40-35. On Thursday, Smith makes his return to MSU after a storied career that’s included stops in the Big Ten and the SEC. Only this time, there’s no question who the favorites are. And it’s certainly not Smith’s Fort Lewis Skyhawks.
The Division II school offers just 28 football scholarships. The Skyhawks have won just seven games the past two seasons under Smith. FLC is picked to finish eighth out of 10 teams in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. On Thursday night, Fort Lewis faces the challenge of helping the No. 11 Bobcats open a 2015 season in which they are picked to win the Big Sky Conference title.
“You have to look at them in comparison to where we are,” Smith said. “They are much bigger and faster and stronger. They have bigger, better athletes than we have on the field. For us going into this game, we are going to have to play our very, very best, not turn the football over AT ALL and we can’t give them any extra chances with the ball. We will have to play a perfect game from a mistake standpoint. If there is some kind of way we can come up with a turnover or two from them, we might end up equalizing the game a little bit. That’s what we need to happen.”
Smith has been a college coach since 1971. He’s made stops as an assistant at Weber State, Montana and Idaho before earning the head coaching job in Moscow in 1989. Since leaving Idaho in 1994, Smith has spent time as the head coach at Utah State, Louisville, Michigan State and, most recently, Arkansas before landing in the RMAC.
Montana State ninth-year head coach Rob Ash has been a college head coach since 1980. He’s never crossed paths with the Smith but he can see Smith’s mark on the Skyhawks watching Fort Lewis on film.
“I know John L. Smith has done a great job with this football team,” Ash said. “They are very, very sound. Everything they do, from the kicking game to the schemes they use on both sides, they are a team that is going to be lined up and be in the right spots and run sound football plays against us.”
If Fort Lewis is to have any chance, it will be because of senior quarterback Jordan Doyle. The 6-foot-2, 227-pounder spent a year at Iowa State and a year at a junior college before earning the starting job in Durango, Colorado in 2013. Last season, Doyle threw for 1,509 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 428 yards and a team-high six touchdowns before suffering a tibial plateau fracture, an injury that ended his season.
“We feel we have nothing to lose,” Doyle said on Tuesday. “We have a great game plan in. We need to run our base stuff and get good at it. The best possible outcome for us is to win the game but we are going to learn a lot from it. We have nothing to lose. Obviously, losing is never ok but it will be a great experience for our guys.”
Doyle’s mobility makes him a threat to run on passing plays as well as a threat in the read option game.
“Mobile quarterback, but we will lock down in coverage and he’ll have to scramble,” MSU senior cornerback Trace Timmer said. “The linebackers will get home. We will control what we can control. We don’t worry about them.”
Doyle’s primary weapon is 5-foot-6, 181-pound sophomore running back PJ Hall. Last season, Hall rushed for 704 yards and two touchdowns before a 38-carry, 166-yard day against Colorado Mesa proved to be his last productive day of the season. Doyle lost his season that same afternoon. Hall carried the ball just 10 more times in 2014. Now he’s healthy once again.
“He’s fast and he’s real short so sometimes he’s hard to find behind the offensive line,” Doyle said. “He had a little power to him too and he can get to the edge. He has a year of experience now, which is great.”
FLC likes to hide Hall behind Doyle in a Pistol looks to use his height as an advantage.
“You try not to lose him in the backfield but it’s the same thing here,” MSU senior captain defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan said. “We have all sizes and speeds of running backs so it’s nothing different we haven’t seen.”
Doyle’s main threats on the outside will be 6-foot, 156-pound senior Juquelle Thompson, an All-RMAC kick returner last season, and 5-foot-10, 165-pound junior Jordan Gillen. The offensive line features seniors left tackle Tyler Jones (6-3, 280) and center Taylor Suta (6-1, 266) and juniors left guard Preston Geib (6-3, 262), right guard Matt Mahe (6-3, 295) and right tackle Kenny Shinley (6-3, 265).
Montana State’s defense will counter with its new multi-faceted scheme. With first-year defensive coordinator Kane Ioane at the helm, Montana State will line up primary in three-man fronts and will blitz from multiple angles, stark changes from the past. The senior trio of Taylor Sheridan (6-4, 280), Connor Thomas (6-3, 290) and Nate Bignell (6-2, 273) will anchor the defensive line, a unit that figures to rotate heavily. Junior outside linebacker Fletcher Collins (6-2, 216), sophomore outside linebacker Mac Bignell (6-0, 190) and redshirt freshman middle linebacker Grant Collins (6-4, 227) will all make their first starts on Thursday, as will Timmer (6-0, 183) and redshirt freshman safety DeMonte King (6-0, 192).
Offensively, Montana State should continue to have no problem moving the football. The Bobcats averaged almost 500 yards per game last season, including 244 with a rushing attack spearheaded by quarterback Dakota Prukop. MSU averaged more than 38 points per outing last season.
The Skyhawks will try to slow down MSU’s spread option attack with its 4-2-5 defense, a unit that doesn’t blitz much and plays quarters coverage almost exclusively on the back end. Ryan Ross, a senior outside linebacker and FLC’s leading tackler in 2014, will not make the trip after suffering a knee injury earlier this fall camp.
“It’s a faceless opponent and we are going to go into each week with that same mindset,” said Prukop, a preseason All-Big Sky selection after piling up 31 total touchdowns last fall. “We are going to do what we do, worry about ourselves and get our job done.”
MSU’s offense features nine receivers and three tight ends likely to see the field and five running backs who should get carries. The offensive line is a veteran group led by All-America junior guard J.P. Flynn (6-5, 317) and All-Big Sky senior left tackle John Weidenaar (6-9, 295). The Bobcats also return All-Big Sky senior center Joel Horn (6-4, 320), senior right tackle Alex Eekhoff (6-6, 286) and senior right guard Kyle Godecke (6-5, 325).
Senior defensive end Sione Folaumoeloa is the star of the Skyhawks’ defense. The 6-foot, 232-pounder notched 12 tackles for loss last season and was the only FLC player to earn preseason All-RMAC consideration. Senior Juan Hull (6-2, 284) starts opposite Folaumoeloa at rush end while senior Dalten Lane (6-2, 260) and Kohlton Tegeler (6-1, 279) are the starting tackles.
With Ross out, junior Austin Nelson (6-0, 200) will start at linebacker alongside junior Shane Nelson (6-0, 196). In the defensive backfield, seniors Theo Chambers (5-10, 150) and Amery Duncan (5-10, 160) will start at cornerback. Sophomore Kaimon Ontiveros (6-0, 176) is the starter at Panther and senior Joshua Roybal (5-10, 173) is the starter at Hero, both safety-linebacker hybrid positions. Sophomore Daniel Walker (6-4, 207) is the starter at free safety.
“It’s a lot different, speed of the game is different but when it comes down to making your reads and doing your job, everything is the same,” Prukop said of opening with a Division II opponent. “Checklist. A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, go through the reads and get better, watch the film, move on, next opponent.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. Jordan Doyle photo courtesy of Fort Lewis Athletics. All Rights Reserved.